Forcing the Breath

Jay Michaelson
August 12, 2019

One of my most frequent meditation habits is forcing the breath.

You may have experienced something similar. You sit down, you say “okay, time to meditate,” and that translates into taking big breaths, or rapid breaths, or otherwise forced, artificial breaths that are surprisingly easy to follow… only not so surprising, because you’ve made them impossible to miss by faking it.

I do this all the time.

And while it’s a simple enough error to correct, the mistake itself actually has a lot to say about the practice of mindfulness. Here’s what I mean.

1. A subtle revolution

First, mindfulness meditation is about noticing what’s happening, not making something else happening.

One of the foundational texts of mindfulness comes from over 2,500 years ago, in the earliest teachings of the Buddha. That text is called in Pali the Satipatthana Sutta, which translates, neatly enough, into the “Discourse on cultivating mindfulness.” And in that text, the Buddha says “Breathing in long, one notices ‘I am breathing in long.’ Breathing in short, one notices, ‘I am breathing in short.’”

This is a seemingly obvious statement but at the time, and even today, it was a revolution. Remember, at the time the Buddha said those words, entire schools of yoga had developed that emphasized special breathing patterns which circulate energy throughout the body. Many of these are still practiced today, and while Western science doesn’t quite know how they work, millions of people experience their benefits every day.

The Buddha set out to teach something totally different.

Instead of modifying the breath to have some desired effect, this new practice of mindfulness set out to just notice, non-judgmentally, however the breath happens to be at any moment. The purpose was, and is, to cultivate a mind and heart that are open to experience, that can hold the pleasant and the difficult and everything in between with a kind of open, spacious equanimity.

If you think about it, almost nothing we do in our lives is like this.

If I go out for dinner, I don’t say “oh, just bring me anything on the menu, I’ll experience it with a kind of open, spacious equanimity.” No! I look over the menu, I vacillate back and forth between this option and that one, maybe I even ask the waiter what they recommend, or what ingredients are in this dish, or a dozen other questions all designed to maximize my enjoyment of my dinner.

Same if I go to a movie. Same if I go to a bar. No matter what we’re doing, generally speaking, we go about our lives trying to arrange the conditions for our happiness.

Forcing the breath in meditation is actually the same thing. Okay, I’m going to meditate. I’ve got the app on, Joseph Goldstein’s mellifluous voice speaking in my ears. He tells me to focus on the breath. Okay, INHALE… exhale. Easy! Hey, I’m doing it right! Am I relaxed now?

Probably not. When I’m forcing the breath in my meditation, I’m still trying to have a certain experience. Even if that experience “mindful” or “relaxed” or “pleasing the teacher by doing this right,” it’s still me searching for a particular experience.

2. Letting go of manipulating experience

And that is stressful. Not only is it physically stress-inducing to force the breath, especially at a more rapid than normal pace, it’s also psychologically stress-inducing. I’m still a human doing, not a human being. I’m still trying to do something right, have a certain experience, and force reality to make me happy.

(Just to note the obvious: Of course, we do and should work to change reality in our professional lives, our personal lives, and our political lives. The point is only that mindfulness is meant to not be that.)

Fortunately, when I catch myself forcing the breath in meditation, there tends to be a treat soon afterwards. Because relaxing out of that stress and manipulation is often, in a small and subtle way, profound.

First there’s the physical relaxation of ceasing something stressful. I can feel the tension subside, melting out of my chest, arms, and jaw. It’s like a moment of sweet rest.

Next comes the waiting. The mind is watchful and alert, awaiting the next breath. Usually there’s a few seconds’ pause before the next inhalation occurs, so there’s a moment of exceptional quiet as the mind watches and waits. With my students, I’ve called this the “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” posture of meditation: not doing anything, but waiting and watching with focused attention.

And then the breath, often quite subtle, revealing what’s actually going on underneath the layers I’ve painted on top of it. Oh, actually it feels like this! Shallow or deep, short or long, here’s what’s actually happening.

Sometimes, this spins into story – I’m tired, I’m anxious, I’m this, I’m that. But I’ve been doing this long enough not to go down the rabbit-hole most of the time. That’s just another little blip popping through the sky of consciousness. With the mind reset from doing-mode to mindfulness-mode, it’s just another thing to notice and let go.

All this… just from letting go of forcing the breath in meditation! Imagine what could happen if I let go of forcing other things in my life to be a certain way….

Dr. Jay Michaelson is the editor of wisdom content for Ten Percent Happier. He’s been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay’s eight books include The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path and the brand new Enlightenment by Trial and Error.

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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